Personal Media Summary: October 2016

Meta: This is delayed by a few weeks, and I’m ending the short experiment of cross-posting to Medium.

A few things I saw or read the last month and half:

  • Watched a lot of episodes of Midsomer Murders (I’m surprised at how many seasons this show has!). Slight dip in quality around season 8, and we stopped around season 9 for now.
  • Watched five episodes of Miss Marple (would’ve watched more, but they were really long, and last one was really silly)
  • Re-watched Interstellar. Just as awesome as the first time round, and the “five-dimensional beings” stuff felt just as gratuitous.
  • Saw a few episodes of The Daily Show (after a gap of several years)

(all of this TV watching happened because my dad was visiting, and I was bed-ridden, all through November)

  • Atlas Obscura is my current favorite for amazing trivia, such as this series1 of “fore-edge paintings” on old books.
  • My “tune of the month” is a track2 from Bladerunner.
  • A bizarre, freaky or tragic animal activity: the offspring of a certain spider species3 eat their mother (!)
  • This is a pre-election piece of reading that shouldn’t be too surprising post-election either, a publication4 by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston titled ”Where have all the workers gone?”. Depressing overall, but page 20 has the money quotes on “the prevalence of pain and pain medication”. Also, it points out how the labor force participation rate has been declining from 67.3% in 2000 to 62.4% in 2015, a 40-year low (!)
  • Some pre-election musings5 on Democracy, that turn out to be prescient.

But what if, in our moment, democracy, as we understand it, isn’t worth defending? Hacker and Pierson’s fellow political scientists Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels take up this question in their new book, Democracy for Realists.

The pair take this question into consideration by setting their sights on what they call the “folk theory” of democracy: the idea that democracy is a system for translating the people’s will into government policy. They describe this belief as a 21st-century “divine right of kings” and consider it just as deluded as its medieval predecessor. For them, American democracy is not the embodiment of a popular will but the endless struggle between warring tribes motivated by cultural, political, and religious alle­giances, plus a hefty dose of self-interest. All politics, by this reasoning, is identity politics.

And that’s when voters know what they’re doing. Drawing on more than half a century of scholarship, Achen and Bartels conclude that “the political ‘belief systems’ of ordinary citizens are generally thin, disorganized, and ideologically incoherent.” These citizens routinely fail simple tests of political knowledge and base their votes on a sloppy mixture of group loyalties and shortsighted assessments of their own well-being—assuming they bother to vote at all, which in the United States, most of the time, they don’t.

That assessment provides a shaky foundation for would-be defenders of democracy. In Achen and Bartels’s telling, politicians win office by appealing to primal instincts within the electorate, while the work of governing is done by elites who know how to organize, build coalitions, and pressure the right legislators. “Policy-making,” they write, “is a job for specialists.” Voters don’t set the agenda; they merely help to elect those who do.

  • The idea6 of another, unseen planet in the solar system just won’t go away.
  • A compilation7 of all the movies that should have won the Oscar for ‘Best Picture’, but didn’t.
  • A really old washing machine advertisement8! Essentially, it’s the same, even after a century: someone using a machine and looking really, really happy doing it.
  • Take this as a bit of comfort if you like to write but you’re worried if you should write in a particular way or for a particular audience: Umberto Eco believes that ”… “I think an author should write what the reader does not expect. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them … to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”

More choice quotes from that interview9:

“Because that’s literature,” said Eco. “Dostoevsky was writing about losers. The main character of The Iliad, Hector, is a loser. It’s very boring to talk about winners. The real literature always talks about losers. Madame Bovary is a loser. Julien Sorel is a loser. I am doing only the same job. Losers are more fascinating.

“Winners are stupid … because usually they win by chance.”

  • This link10 is a bit for fans of Soviet Sci-Fi.
  • Finally, the “long read” recommendation11 of the month:

Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them?

Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.

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